Virginia Woolf’s novels have always seemed waif-like to me; slight, ethereal wisps of poetic prose that can be read in a single sitting. Night and Day, her second novel, couldn’t be more different to this impression; it has far more resemblance to the doorstop length sagas of her father’s contemporaries than to her later works that so epitomise the modernism of the 1920s and 1930s. It took me a long time to read; partly due to the sheer amount of words, but also because I was enjoying it so much that I wanted to remain immersed in it for as long as possible. It is an intriguing mix of 19th and 20th century, of classic and modern, of past influences and forward thinking innovation. Despite its seeming distance from her later novels, it is still unmistakeably Woolf. Only she could write the magnificently atmospheric scenes of misty twilight walks in London, only she could write with such passion and insight of the importance of work to a woman, only she could bring to life the quirks of a family whose existence is enshrined within the memory of famous Victorian ancestors, and only she could create prose with moments of beauty so profound that you can’t help but stop and revisit them again and again, drinking in the words with a thirst that can’t be satiated. It’s not her best work, by any means, but it is certainly rippling with greatness, and is a must read for those who wish to understand more of Woolf’s development and influences as a writer.
On the surface, it’s a rather conventional love story. In places it reminded me of an Austen novel, and in others, a Shakespearean comedy. Whomever she borrowed from, Woolf owes much to the greats in her plotting, as she uses a very traditional three act structure that introduces our protagonists, moves them off to different scenery to throw a spanner into the works, and then brings them back to their original habitat to tie everything up with a neat and tidy bow. However, as this is Woolf, there’s much more to it than that, and she introduces many ideas, philosophies and wonderful idiosyncracies throughout the novel that make it uniquely hers, and uniquely of its time.
The main character is Katherine Hilbery, a beautiful, free spirited girl in her late twenties who lives on the infamous Cheyne Walk in Chelsea with her well to do, intellectual parents. Her mother is the only child of England’s most treasured poet, and is much feted by the great and good of society thanks to this connection. As such, Katherine has grown up in a home of ideas, of intellect, of literature, romance and reverence. History and ancestry weigh heavily upon her, especially as her days are largely taken up with helping her overly romantic and easily distracted mother write a seemingly never ending biography of her famous grandfather. Katherine is being pursued by William Rodney, a very eligible, achingly conventional would be poet in his late thirties, who thinks that Katherine is a perfect exemplar of womanhood and an ideal model for his wife. Pompous and earnest, he writes reams of terrible Elizabethan inspired drama and imagines himself desperately in love with Katherine, when really he doesn’t know her at all. He reminded me of Pride and Prejudice‘s Mr Collins in many ways, and I do wonder whether Woolf used him as an inspiration when she wrote this character; his melodrama and insincerity are absolutely hilarious. However, William isn’t the only one who admires Katherine; Ralph Denham, an idealistic young lawyer who writes articles for Katherine’s father’s periodical, comes along to one of her parents’ salons and falls in love with her at first sight. He too will join the pursuit for her hand, though this will be complicated by his close friendship with Mary Datchet, a sensible suffragette who works for the cause in a dingy office in Bloomsbury and lives alone off the Strand. She is hopelessly in love with Ralph, and is in agony in his presence. Woolf sends this motley crew on a fateful Christmas in the countryside, where Katherine’s cousin Cassandra will enter the action, and set everything spinning on its head…
This summary makes it all sound very light hearted and comical, but amidst the almost farcical elements, this is actually a very serious and ambitious novel about women and men and their search for personal freedom. Katherine delays marriage because she wants to be able to pursue her own interests and not be bound to anyone else. She is afraid of the sacrifices marriage will entail, but she is also afraid of having to remain dependent on her parents forever. As a woman, what real choice does she have? Is there another way? Mary thinks she is in love, but she gradually learns that her work is the only thing that gives her true satisfaction. Able to channel her passion and talents into a fulfilling form of self expression, Mary doesn’t necessarily need a husband; her work is sufficient, and this can be a legitimate way to live her life. This is a daring conclusion indeed for a novel written in 1919. Night and Day might be mainly about the difference between men and women, but it is also to a certain extent about the difference between the soul and society, and how we are often forced to behave in a way that is totally opposite to our desire in order to satisfy others and conform to the expectations of our peers. There is a darkness, an unfathomable depth within each of us that we are never permitted to expose to the light of day; how do we find happiness when so much of our true selves is forced to remain hidden?
There is much hand wringing, much angst, much waffling philosophy, and it is overlong, with too much of some characters and not enough of others; I would particularly have loved to have seen more of the magnificent Mrs Hilbery, who floats through the novel quoting Tennyson and dreaming of Shakespeare’s tomb. Also, I didn’t agree with the outcome, and I thought that Mary Datchet was given rather short shrift; much more could have been done with her character. However, overall, this is quite a remarkable novel, a bridge between Woolf’s early and later works, and arguably most notable for its brilliant depiction of London, for which this could feasibly be used as a tour guide. The characters all roam the streets of a smoky, gas lit London, walking for miles along the river, riding atop omnibuses, pounding the red brick streets of Chelsea, working in the tall black terraces of Bloomsbury, mingling with the faceless crowds on the Strand, stopping in cafes dripping with condensation, rambling through the exotic plants at Kew, watching the monkeys perform acrobatics at the zoo…London is a character all of its own, and is beautifully, passionately, lovingly brought to life in all its splendour. I don’t think any novelist can quite capture London in the way Woolf does, and Night and Day is definitely worth reading for that alone.
‘Although the old coaches, with their gay panels and the guard’s horn, and the humours of the box and the vicissitudes of the road, have long mouldered into dust so far as they matter, and are preserved in the printed pages of our novelists so far as they partook of the spirit, a journey to London by express train can still be a very pleasant and romantic adventure. Cassandra Otway, at the age of twenty-two, could imagine few things more pleasant. Satiated with months of green fields as she was, the first row of artisans’ villas on the outskirts of London seemed to have something serious about it, which positively increased the importance of every person in the railway carriage, and even, to her impressionable mind, quickened the speed of the train and gave a note of stern authority to the shriek of the engine-whistle. They were bound for London; they have must have precedence of all traffic not similarly destined.’